By Meaghan Resta, Saint Joseph’s University
When Jonathan Cleck, a 23-year veteran of the Navy SEALs, and his wife, Stephanie, relocated to the Philadelphia area five years ago, they were ready to jumpstart their small family business: a mobile hair styling service that caters to clients in their homes.
“When we re-branded the company under the name Concihairge and hired our first employee,” Cleck remembers, “We recognized that there were a lot of gaps in our knowledge in the scope of a more complex small business — marketing, social media, employees, hiring. There were a lot of holes in our skill sets.”
Cleck soon discovered that the Veterans Entrepreneurial Jumpstart program at Saint Joseph’s University offered the business fundamentals and resources needed to expand their business.
Since 2015, the Veterans Entrepreneurial Jumpstart Program and the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans (delivered through Saint Joseph’s affiliation with Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families) have provided the tools, education and mentorship necessary for veterans to start or grow their own businesses. And of the nine U.S. universities that offer the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans (EBV), Saint Joseph’s has distinguished itself as the only Catholic university in the consortium.
Cleck is among the 186 veterans who have benefited from entrepreneurial programs offered through Saint Joseph’s Office of Veterans Services. While all of the participants share a background in military service, each veteran’s path is unique.
“We get veterans at the early stages of their entrepreneurial journey. Most of the participants have an idea that they have developed over time and some are already in business. Some are retired,” explains Hank Gillen, director of veterans services. “Our purpose is to help them to start or grow their business.”
As military men and women return home from service and explore various pathways to transition into civilian life, many find success as entrepreneurs. Statistics show that veterans are more inclined to start their own business than the general population. According to a recent Small Business Administration study, veterans are 45 percent more likely to be self-employed than non-veterans.
“Entrepreneurship is somewhat of a unique calling. The success of entrepreneurship requires tenacity, focus and self-discipline to stay on task,” says Gillen. “Veterans have been exposed to and have mastered these skills during their military service.”
The EBV program is designed in three phases. During the initial phase, veterans participate in a self-study curriculum and receive instructor feedback as they formalize a business plan. The second phase of the program consists of an intense, nine-day residency where veterans are exposed to a broad training curriculum through classroom discussions, guest lectures by faculty in Saint Joseph’s Haub School of Business and industry practitioners, and experiential learning. Veterans are mentored as they further develop and refine their business plans, which are evaluated during a venture pitch competition. Veterans receive ongoing mentorship and a suite of support services for twelve months after completing the on-campus residency.
Two out of three graduates go on to seek additional training in areas like procurement, sales or small business incubators, or pursue the NexGen Academy, the University’s professional development certificate program for family businesses.
Tim Swift, Ph.D., associate professor of management and interim director of the Pedro Arrupe, S.J. Center for Business Ethics, has taught courses on public speaking and presentation skills in the entrepreneurial programs. He says, “I have come to realize that many military veterans have already gained much relevant training and experience that helps them to become highly effective entrepreneurs. They understand taking calculated risks. They know how to solve problems on their own, with limited resources. They know how to organize, inspire and lead teams. Many are active people who don’t want to be ‘cramped in an office.’ All of these experiences and traits naturally lend themselves to entrepreneurship.”
Since winning the venture pitch competition in 2018, Cleck has pitched the mobile hair service to investors and competed in several pitch competitions. In just a year, Concihairge has taken off.
“We were able to take a better look at our business model in terms of productivity, our overhead, our efficiencies and inefficiencies in our business processes, and we were able to make tremendous improvements because of the knowledge we gained throughout the program,” he says. “We are now up over 700 percent in sales. We have streamlined our overhead and we have cut costs.”
Cleck reflected on the common bond shared among the veterans and entrepreneurs. “You share stories of success, lessons learned from failed business attempts and mistakes in starting or running a business, as well as the natural self-doubt that comes with any attempt of a new venture,” he explains.
The entrepreneurial programs closely align with the Jesuit mission and philosophy of Saint Joseph’s.
“St. Ignatius was a disabled veteran. While recovering from a military injury, he went into a path of reflection, which led him to find the Society of Jesus. Education was a big part of his recovery. We’re enabling veterans to follow a similar path of discovery to become small business owners,” Gillen says.
“Our program is consistent with the Jesuit philosophy of cura personalis, care for the whole person. We are working with the veterans to not only become technically proficient in the business requirements of entrepreneurship, but also to be mindful of their own personal strengths and resilience.”